Blast goes to Cleveland carrying city's grudge

Rivalry with Crunch continues tradition

Pro Soccer

January 26, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Time goes by and teams change. Players change, along with coaches and management. But when it comes to teams from Baltimore playing teams from Cleveland, nothing seems to change.

The rivalry is always there - be it in pro football, baseball or indoor soccer.

"There are times when people talk about rivalries, but it's just talk," said Blast forward Lee Tschantret. "But these teams hate each other. You can see it in their eyes."

This weekend, it will be the indoor soccer rivalry on display, as the Blast plays the Crunch tonight at the CSU Convocation Center in Cleveland before they return here for the rematch tomorrow night at the Baltimore Arena.

The Blast is 1-10 against the Crunch over the past three seasons, including a 16-7 loss at Cleveland on Dec. 30. Since 1992, when Baltimore joined the National Professional Soccer League, Cleveland holds the overall series edge, 19-16.

But through the years, through leagues coming and going, through the Major Indoor Soccer League, the Major Soccer League and now the NPSL, the rivalry has never faded.

Starting in the 1980s, the two teams - then the Blast and the Force - battled for supremacy in the East. No one liked each other then. Not the ownerships, not the fans, the players or even the caterers at the team's home arenas, as everything from play on the field to the pre-game meal came under attack from the opponents.

Now, the Crunch and the Blast continue to rub each other the wrong way.

"It's just their attitude," said the Blast's Paul Wright, a veteran midfielder familiar with the long-standing feud. "Cleveland players have a bit of arrogance."

The Blast's leading scorer, Denison Cabral, agrees. He recalls how Cleveland players taunt Blast players with their recent lack of success against the Crunch.

"They walk by the bench and say things like, `You guys are never going to beat us,' " Cabral said. "And our response is, `All right, we're going to show you right now!' and the fight's on."

The arrogance spilled over into a fistfight outside the Cleveland locker room here last season. Wright was in the midst of that.

"They just started running their mouth and we decided to close it," he said.

Differences on the field don't usually carry over. Blast forward Mark Thomas, who played for Cleveland during 1992-93 and in the 1993-94 season, when the Crunch won the NPSL title, goes so far as to say many of its players are actually "nice guys" off the field - "though there is no love lost when we play."

Going into Cleveland tonight, the Blast knows even with the Crunch having an off-year on paper - it is just 10-10 and in fourth place in the American Conference - it is still a formidable foe, if only because of the confidence it has when playing Baltimore.

And in Cleveland, Crunch coach Bruce Miller can't wait to see these two teams go at each other.

"I'm in my sixth year here, and I think both teams realize how good each other is," he said. "When you play teams you expect to beat, there isn't much fire. But with Baltimore, it seems there is always the possibility of defeat in every game."

There is respect, grudging, on both sides. "To give them credit," Wright said, "they are a good team and they give us a lot of matchup problems. They like to possess the ball a lot, and they don't turn it over a lot. That means we don't get the turnovers or the fast breaks that we usually do."

The Blast and Crunch can fire off the names of their hated counterparts. The Blast belts out Hector Marinaro (the longtime forward who still ties as the second-most proficient scorer in the league this season with 78 points), Nikola Vignjevic (who also has 78 points), John Ball, Scott Schweitzer, Andy Schmetzer. And the Crunch replies, Wright, Tarik Walker, Cabral, Danny Kelly, Thomas and Tschantret.

"If there's a hatred for a player, it's because it's a player who has an impact on the game," Miller said. "They can talk about our guys being disruptive, but it goes both ways. We can say how much we hate 'em, but our games are always like playoff games. I wish all our games could be like these."

The Crunch is built around skillful ballhandlers and forwards who know how to finish scoring chances. The Blast, too, is skillful. But in the last meeting between the two teams, Baltimore's inability to put away the ball was costly.

It also cost the Blast in recent losses against Detroit and Philadelphia, which is why Blast coach Kevin Healey had the team taking extra shooting drills this week.

"This is an important weekend," Healey said. "We need to establish we can beat them."

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